Organic, Natural or Sustainable?


I have a technical question about my wine list that I hope you can help me with.

A winemaker says he does not spray any chemicals on his grapes and says he is "natural without compromises". But he uses copper and sulphur, as well as treatments based on propolis. So I'm not sure if he would be organic or natural or sustainable. Can you give me some guidance? He's in Italy, not the US by the way.


Dear MIchael:

I don’t know how helpful I can be. Basically you are asking me to make bricks without straw, except the base material isn’t even mud – it’s pure bullshit.

The terms “natural” and “sustainable” have no actual meaning in any body of law I know of. They were developed so we can have nice-sounding commercial categories in a world where organic certification is so screwed up that noone wants to use it. Until they are defined, you have to take the winegrower’s word for it. Not the worst thing in the world to trust somebody who at least knows what he’s talking about.

The term “chemicals” has a scientific definition and a pop definition which are completely incongruent. Organic certification is legally supported and precisely defined, but the rules are bizarre, including pointless restrictions and gaping loopholes. Sulphur dusting and copper-containing Bordeaux mixture are acceptable for organic certification although both are toxic to workers and copper has been found to be harmful to fish, livestock and—due to potential build up of copper in the soil—earthworms.

Any substance is made of chemicals. Water is a chemical. If he sprays anything on his grapes, it's made from chemicals. The pop definition implies “bad chemicals; harmful, industrial, synthetic chemicals.” Water, of course, can be synthesized and can be harmful, but I’m mostly in favor of it. How can you tell bad chemicals? Either you ask a certification board or you trust the grower. Or ask what he does use. This I could research for you.

“Sustainable” at least implies some sort of neutral carbon footprint, and has the potential for validation organizations to spring up eventually. I am convinced that “Natural” is the most worthless of these terms because the factions involved will never agree on what it means. See my article on I believe the best way to tell if something is natural is just to ask Alice Feiring. It’s her personal word, and like pornography, she knows it when she sees it, even if nobody else does.

The nearest I can slice your guy is that he isn’t using anything banned from the organic certification but isn’t certified (he would say so) for some obscure reason. Perhaps he hasn’t made it through the three year waiting period, or the local certifier has a feud with his uncle. Maybe he hates paperwork.

Or maybe, like most farmers, he is doing what he thinks is right; following the rules that make sense to him and ignoring the idiotic. That sounds uncompromising to me.



Morton Leslie:

I have found over my decades in the wine business that a winegrower's word isn't anymore trustworthy than a used car salesman. I would even put myself in that category. We will say anything it takes to sell a bottle of wine and we get so used to our bullshit we don't give it a second thought. The point is, organic or natural are in reality marketing terms, currently overused to the point of losing all meaning.

Regarding what is a chemical, years ago a winemaker I knew had a large fish tank in his office full of colorful exotic fish. A trucker dropped off a large box of grapefruit on the weekend which was placed in his office. When the winemaker came into the office on Monday every fish in the tank was dead. Pyrethrin... the volatile, certified "organic", non-chemical, pesticide in the box of fruit was the culprit. If the grapefruit had been laced with the "chemical" DDT the fish might have still have been alive.

Natural means "the way God intended" and comes from the core of our myths and beliefs. Natural law is a central part of the Catholic church past and present. In the past it was used to keep us in line, and now and then to burn people at the stake or imprison homosexuals. But today it has become a sales tool indicating a product has God's approval. As you point out, God has apparently appointed Alice Feiring to be his spokesperson. We better listen up, it's not good to ignore Mother Nature.


Christian Miller:

Witty and to the point, Clark. Interestingly, based on our research, a lot of high frequency wine drinkers have a fairly good instinctual grasp of sustainability. When asked what practices would be part of sustainably produced wines, 61% said protecting natural resources, 54% said minimizing use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, 50% said using renewable resources, 43% said minimizing CO2 or greenhouse gas output.


Honestly, I think for most people organic and natural is becoming more of a fad or a marketing scheme. I'm with Morton on this one, natural is how god intended things to be, not some cheap throw back.